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Rich nations caused climate harm to poorer ones, study says

By SETH BORENSTEIN and DREW COSTLEY

For decades, environmental activists along with some government officials and scientists have argued that rich countries should pay the most to address climate change, and even pay poor countries reparations, because industrialized nations have historically emitted the most greenhouse gases.

A new study by two Dartmouth scientists aims to calculate just how much economic impact larger emitters have caused other nations. Published Tuesday in the journal Climatic Change, the study says the figures could be used in courtrooms and in international climate negotiations about payments from rich nations that burn more coal, oil and gas, to poor countries damaged by emissions.

For example, the data shows that the top carbon emitter over time, the United States, has caused more than $1.9 trillion in climate damage to other countries from 1990 to 2014, including $310 billion in damage to Brazil, $257 billion in damage to India, $124 billion to Indonesia, $104 billion to Venezuela and $74 billion to Nigeria. But at the same time, the United States’ own carbon pollution has benefited the U.S. by more than $183 billion.

“Do all countries look to the United States for restitution? Maybe,” said study co-author Justin Mankin, a Dartmouth College climate scientist. “The U.S. has caused a huge amount of economic harm by its emissions, and that’s something that we have the data to show.”

Developing nations have convinced rich nations to promise to financially help them reduce carbon emissions for the future, but haven’t been able to get restitution for damage already caused, a term called “loss and damage” in global climate talks. In those negotiations, the biggest carbon emitters, like the United States and China have had a “veil of deniability” that their actions caused specific damages, said study lead author Christopher Callahan, a climate impacts researcher at Dartmouth. This lifts that veil, he said.

“Scientific studies such as this groundbreaking piece show that high emitters no longer have a leg to stand on in avoiding their obligations to address loss and damage,” said Bahamian climate scientist Adelle Thomas of Climate Analytics, who wasn’t part of the study. She said recent studies “increasingly and overwhelmingly show that loss and damage is already crippling developing countries.

While carbon emissions have been tracked for decades on the national levels and damages have been calculated, Callahan and Mankin said this is the first study to connect all the dots from the countries producing the emissions to countries affected by it. The studies also tallies benefits, which are mainly seen in northern countries like Canada and Russia, and rich nations like the U.S. and Germany.

“It’s the countries that have emitted the least that are also the ones that tend to be harmed by increases in global warming. So that double inequity to me is kind of a central finding that I want to emphasize,” Callahan said.

To do the study, first Callahan looked at how much carbon each nation emitted and what it means for global temperatures, using large climate models and simulating a world with that country’s carbon emissions, a version of the scientifically accepted attribution technique used for extreme weather events. He then connected that to economic studies that looked at the relationship between temperature rise and damage in each country.

“We can actually fingerprint U.S. culpability on Angola’s economic outcomes,” Mankin said.